Waymon Hudson

ABC's Modern Family: How "Modern" is its Gay Couple?

Filed By Waymon Hudson | May 12, 2010 1:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Media, The Movement
Tags: ABC, Brothers & Sisters, gay couples, kiss, LGBT families, Modern Family, sitcom, television, Ugly Betty

Updated with Statement from ABC at the End of the Post

It seems the internet has been buzzing with a debate that has been going on for some tim in our house after a recent episode of ABC's newest hit Modern Family:

Just how "modern" is the gay couple on Modern Family?

6a00d8341c503453ef01348085d8f0970c.jpgThe recent episode featured a scene that showed, in stark contrast, just how differently the gay couple on the show is treated form the heterosexual counterparts, as Jeremy Hooper at Good As You points out:

Phil (at left) and Mitchell (at right) have been on a bit of adventure, rushing back to Mitchell's house to retrieve the latter's forgotten wallet. This takes longer than expected, causing Claire and Cameron to fear that their respective spouses or going to miss the plane. So when Claire and Cameron see their respective spouses, they are understandably elated. Without thinking, Claire greets with a kiss. Mitchell and Cameron -- hug.

The thing I realized when seeing this: I don't believe Mitchell and Cameron have ever kissed on the show. If ever there was a time to do so, it was during this scene last night.It's just what one would do in such a situation.

To me, this is just the latest example of how the show treats their gay couple vastly different from their heterosexual ones.

I have to say before we delve into the show's treatment of their gay couple, that I am truly a fan. While my husband and I rarely watch sitcoms because they drive us insane, Modern Family has captured our hearts. So this isn't a call to arms or a demand for a viewer boycott. It's simply a look at a glaring example of how even a modern, progressive show that puts an LGBT family front and center still manages to miss the mark.

1172.jpgABC is known for showing heart-warming depictions of LGBT people. The network has given us Brothers & Sisters, with an amazing gay couple at the heart of the Walker family who kisses, sleeps together, cuddles, and even married on the show. They've also given us Ugly Betty, with fully-formed strong gay and transgender characters, from the highly sexualized Mark St James to the male-to-female transition of Alexis Meade to young Justin Suarez, perhaps the best depiction of coming out on television that featured moving scenes of the high schooler kissing his new boyfriend for the first time.

Justin-Ugly-Betty.jpgSo ABC isn't the issue. Something is holding back Modern Family from fully developing its smart and sassy gay couple's relationship.

Here is the problem that I have. The couple has adopted a daughter on the show. They are obviously committed and in a long-term relationship. Yet they have never kissed on screen. Ever. Every other couple constantly kisses, cuddles, and makes out, yet the gay couple is relegated to a chaste hug.

In fact, a Facebook group has popped up demanding "Let Cam & Mitchell kiss on Modern Family!" I've already joined.

Even more glaring is how the couple refers to one another. They call each other "boyfriends." Not "husbands" or even "partners", but boyfriends. They have a family, own a home, and share their lives together, yet use a diminutive term for their relationship like "boyfriends"? The family obviously views them as more than boyfriends as well, calling them both "uncles" and not differentiating the relationship from others in the family, yet the couple themselves still can't talk about each other more than if they are casually dating?

Modern-Fam-2-768x1024.jpgNot very "Modern."

These are all symptoms of a larger issue. The show completely neuters and desexualizes its gay couple. Sure, they never kiss, but they also never even make innuendo or refer to any kind of sexual relationship between the two of them. The other couples do what every sitcom does, with a nod and a wink refer to their sex lives and their physical relationship as a married couple. That doesn't happen with the gay couple.

Modern Family is a great show. I'm happy to have it on the air and will continue to watch it. What I hope, however, is that the show's producers continue to make a fun, heart-warming show about the make-up of modern families in today's society and strive to make a bit more realistic and reflective of where LGBT families are today.

That would be truly modern.


Looks like ABC heard the online grumbles. They issued a statement about Cam and Mitchell on Modern Family:

Cameron and Mitchell are a loving, grounded, committed, and demonstrably affectionate couple and have been from the beginning of the series. It happens that we have an episode in the works that addresses Mitchell's slight discomfort with public displays of affection. It will air in the fall and until then, as Phil Dunphy would say, everyone please chillax.

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I have only watched just a little of this show due to my scheduled. I was wondering if the writers/producers whoever doesn't have the gsay couple show more affection is because this show is drawing in quite a few of mainstream families watching? Other words.....it would be "too gay" for the show to have the gasy couple do more because people who are not gay would become uncomfortable with it? Just thinking outloud in text.

I think that has something to do with it. But that attitude also deserves looking at and examining.

I would think that anyone uncomfortable with the gay couple acting like a couple would have problems with the show anyways (the couple adopted a kid, for goodness sake). Just having them on the show would upset the same crowd, I would think. Having them reflect a more modern view of a gay family (dropping the boyfriend schtick) isn't that much of a step further.

Y'know, I had originally been offended by the treatment of the gay couple, but I recently read that their lack of PDA in the airport scene has more to do with the character of Mitchell, and even though that might sound like a copout, I actually buy it.

I'm kind of the same way with my bf. I'm cool kissing in Chelsea or the West Village, but not in some extremely public unknown place like an airport or the subway. That might just be me projecting, but it's not necessarily a red flag that the show is marginalizing its gays.

I might be willing to buy that explanation if they showed physical affection in "safe" spaces like their home or their family's home. The reason this scene stands out is because the side-by-side comparison, not as a stand alone scene.

Like I said, I'm a huge fan of the show. I just think we need to look at shows like this, that have a strong LGBT point of view, and question what makes them shy away from a fully developed, normally sexualized gay couple. I don't have the answers, but it's a interesting discussion.

Dodge Man | May 12, 2010 4:00 PM

I wonder if they are not so sexualized because that is the way their characters are supposed to be, not to avoid it, but to create that obvious contrast between the sexulization of the other couples?

I know on the kissing thing that I can get pretty uncomfortable being kissed in a very public place that I don't know and have no clue how it will be reacted to so on that one kiss I can see how that could be legitimately excused.

I think people are being WAY too hard on this show. It's only been on for a minute and network TV business is extremely tough so give them a chance. I know of gay people who are just not into PDA.

I don't think anyone is being too hard on the show. As i said, I'm a huge fan. But an obvious double standard is at play and it makes a great case study about how far we've come and how far we have to go in television representations of our families.

JonathonEdwards | May 12, 2010 5:28 PM

I actually watched this episode and think the difference, in this instance, related more to the fact that the wife was drunk. She was boozed up from an airport bar and the way she kissed her husband was, well kind of drunk-lascivious. Compared to the stone cold sober gay guys.

This isn't to argue with the main point of the post, of course. If you're going to show gay people on TV, show real gay people, not cartoons or de-sexed eunuchs. But in this particular instance, I'm not sure it has as much to do with the sexual orientations of the characters as it does with the wifes drinky.

Looks like ABC heard the online grumbles. They issued a statement about Cam and Mitchell on Modern Family:

Cameron and Mitchell are a loving, grounded, committed, and demonstrably affectionate couple and have been from the beginning of the series. It happens that we have an episode in the works that addresses Mitchell's slight discomfort with public displays of affection. It will air in the fall and until then, as Phil Dunphy would say, everyone please chillax.

Lots of gay couples who've been together a long time still use the word "boyfriend." Cameron and Mitchell are not married, so why would you want them to say "husband"? And even though "partner" is becoming more common for gay and straight couples, I still know a lot of people who feel it sounds like you have a law firm together, not a domestic partnership.

And actually, if I remember correctly, a couple episodes ago, when Mitchell and Cameron went to that rich guy's house who offered him a job, the guy introduced them to his friends as, "Mitchell and his partner Cameron." So, clearly, the use of boyfriend is a character choice, not an indication of homophobia on the part of the creators of the show.

Christopher | May 12, 2010 6:31 PM

I live with my boyfriend and we love cuddling up and watching this show together. For the last two weeks, his parents have been staying with us. And, I have to say, we are very different in front of his and my family than when we are alone. We are so affectionate and physical in private, but not when we are with our families. And come to think of it, none of our siblings and their spouses are very physical in front of each other. yet, I don't think there is anything wrong or amiss with their relationships either. I think the portrayal of this gay couple is just that...this gay couple. It is a win to have this couple be represented, but it's important to remember that they don't represent gay couples everywhere. We may all want to march under one banner, but it doesn't mean we are all the same.

I think I recall reading an interview somewhere that said that Cameron and Mitchell weren't physically affectionate because they were too busy taking care of Lily, and when parents have a new child, romance sort of falls to the wayside for a while. I think the interview also promised that this would change soon.

Haven't seen the show, but I've seen that still you put before the jump everywhere and it's fairly bad optics. On the one hand, I can see it - the gay couple in reality would be far less likely to kiss in public. We get told to hide it all the time, often with an implicit threat of violence, so maybe they were just trying to be real.

But if there's no affection in the home, it seems more like TV neutering of gay couples. We're OK so long as we don't have sex, yippie!

If they actually address violence and the closet when they talk about the character's issues with PDA (instead of it just being "I was just raised that way!"), that'd be pretty cool.

But if there's no affection in the home, it seems more like TV neutering of gay couples. We're OK so long as we don't have sex, yippie!

You hit the nail on the head. All of the reasoning about PDA doesn't apply to their home life (where the other hetero couples kiss and canoodle all the time). It's just a double standard.

I do hope the episode they are now planning addresses the pressure of the closet and the issue of same-sex PDA in a real way. That would be a ground-breaking episode if done right.

we have an episode in the works that addresses Mitchell's slight discomfort with public displays of affection.

I'll bet they do. I'll bet they do.

It's amazing what a little internet chatter will do. :)

If nothing else, I think this discussion will push the show and the network to work harder. It's a win-win.

I think Mitchel and Cameron are only desexualized in the same way most new parents actually desexualize themselves until they get the hang of caring for a new family member. The romantic relationship takes the back seat for a while. Ask any new parent you know how many times they've had sex in their first child's first year of life and, if they're being candid, I bet they could probably count it on two hands.

Thomasina | May 13, 2010 5:26 PM

I agree with most of what you've said about "Modern Family," but I strongly disagree that Cameron and Mitchell should be calling each other "partners" or "husbands." "Husbands" would be great if they were married--but they're not, and calling each other "husbands" without the characters actually being married would only make the audience assume they were married when they're not (or worse, would add to the false perception that gay marriage is currently possible in California or most of the rest of the US, when it is not).
As for the term "partner": you may think of "boyfriends" as a "diminutive term" for a relationship (I don't agree), but I think the term "partner" makes any relationship seem less than what it really is. I hear it as extremely clinical and impersonal. If a person introduces another person to me as a "partner," I usually think that means they own a business together, not share a life. Also, even when it's clear that a person *is* talking about a romantic relationship, "partner" is so intrinsically gender neutral (unlike "boyfriend" or "girlfriend") that it always sounds to me like it's an attempt to elide the gender of the person being referred to. I think the widespread use of the term "partner" for gay relationships is actually a subtle way to send those relationships back into the closet--if there are only "partners" instead of two "boyfriends" or two "girlfriends," that makes it slightly easier for bigots to pretend there's nothing sexual going on.

I think you raise some great points, Thomasina. I think relationship labels are a place to give personal leeway. Just like some people like "gay", "queer", or "homosexual" when referring to themselves, people have different ways of referring to their relationships.

I guess my problem is that I don't think "boyfriend" lends the seriousness that a relationship where they have created a family by adopting, etc deserves. It feels minimizing in my eyes. But that is a matter of personal taste, I suppose.

Great comment that gives me things to think about...

I love the show too, and I guess I have become inured to how things take place on tv. I didn't even notice that embrace side-by-side with the passionate kiss between the married couple.

One thing they have absolutely gotten right is that they don't pick on the gay couple - all of the humor is spread out throughout the show, so that everyone at some time or the other is kind of bumbling. Lots of other shows would have made a flamboyant gay character into a dithering idiot...Cam and Mitchell might be that way on occasion, but so is everyone else.

For me, I'm willing to give ABC some time to get to the romance, and I have to agree with some of those who've commented that I'm not all that comfortable kissing in public either.

Actually, I not only agree with the column but in fact find the show even more problematic than just lack of affection between Cam and Mitchell. I find that the portrayal of their relationship tends to lampoon them as people, whereas with the other couples, there is lots of evidence that, despite their foibles they *REALLY* love each other. Cam and Mitchell's relationship is just unconvincing and feels like a clueless straight person concocted it. That's why I stopped watching the show. I have no time for a series that uses gay people only for comedic effect.